With apologies to Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh, who both deliver excellent performances, BLACK WIDOW (2021), the long-awaited standalone movie for Marvel’s Black Widow, is not excellent. In fact, it’s all rather by-the-numbers and ordinary.
Not my favorite Marvel superhero movie. Not by a long shot. Fans of Black Widow, and of Johansson’s portrayal of the character, deserve better.
Another issue I have with BLACK WIDOW is it’s a prequel, in that it tells a back story of the character with events taking place in between the ending of CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016) and the beginning of THE AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018), and in the process, shedding light on Black Widow’s origins as well. I’m simply not a big fan of prequels, especially when we already know the main character’s ultimate fate, as is the case here, with Black Widow having died in AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019). I would have much preferred a story in which the future of the character was still unknown, so in a way, it’s a shame that Black Widow didn’t get her standalone movie earlier.
Anyway, BLACK WIDOW, which was released theatrically in July after being delayed for over a year due to Covid-19, is now streaming for free on Disney Plus.
Natasha Romanoff/aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run as the Avengers are now fugitives from justice after the events in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. Romanoff is contacted by her estranged and adoptive sister Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) who seeks her help in taking down a secret Russian organization led by the mysterious Dreykov (Ray Winstone) that is using mind-altering drugs to brainwash young girls into becoming deadly assassins the world over. Both Natasha and Yelena are familiar with this organization because they used to be a part of it.
Natasha agrees to help her sister but decides they also need the help of their former adoptive parents, Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz), and so they seek out these folks, and eventually, as a family, they square off against Dreykov and his army of brainwashed assassins. And that’s pretty much the plot of BLACK WIDOW, and as plots go, it’s pretty standard. In fact, the premise of this one I found dreadfully dull, which is surprising, since generally the Marvel movies are scripted much better than this one.
Sure, there are plenty of specifics I’m not mentioning here, from Red Dust, to Red Room, to Red Guardian, but at the end of the day, the screenplay by Eric Pearson is just a standard tale of a family of assassins finding each other at long last and reconciling their differences in order to take on the super bad guy pulling all the strings. It also strangely doesn’t overly focus on Black Widow. The film is every bit as much about the rest of her “family” as it is about her. Pearson was also one of the writers who wrote GODZILLA VS. KONG (2021), a movie that had a screenplay that was far worse than the one here in BLACK WIDOW. And he also co-wrote THOR: RAGNAROK (2017) which featured a better screenplay than the two aforementioned movies.
Where BLACK WIDOW soars is with its action scenes. They are phenomenal. The fight sequences here are fast, furious, and expertly edited, especially the ones where sisters Natasha and Yelena square off against each other. Director Cate Shortland gets the actions scenes right. But it’s a rarity for a film to be enjoyable based solely on its action scenes. You need a good story as well. And that’s the case here with BLACK WIDOW. Great action sequences, but they’re not enough to lift this one.
This is Scarlett Johansson’s ninth time playing Black Widow, and she has wowed audiences every time. Her performance here in BLACK WIDOW is no exception. Unfortunately, in her standalone film, she’s stuck in a subpar story and with the most mediocre dialogue I’ve seen in a Marvel movie in quite a while.
Florence Pugh is equally as good as assassin sister Yelena. I’m almost tempted to say Pugh’s performance overshadows Johansson’s because Pugh is that good, but I won’t, because Johansson as Black Widow is still a wee bit better.
But these two actors dominate the movie, and the good news is they are on screen most of the time, and they pretty much save this one and keep it from being a snooze fest.
So, you have two outstanding actors delivering kick-ass performances, and topnotch action sequences to boot, but at the end of the day, that’s pretty much all you have, and with a mediocre story and dialogue, the film struggles to become anything all that special.
Also, unusual for a Marvel film, neither Johansson or Pugh get much help from anyone else in the cast. David Harbour is fine as Alexei/Red Guardian, and he enjoys some fun comedic moments, but there aren’t a lot of these moments. And while Rachel Weisz is spot on as the humorless Melina, the character is humorless. Nuff said.
I did enjoy Ray Winstone as Dreykov, but in a movie that runs two hours and fourteen minutes, his evil on screen presence only takes up about ten minutes of it.
One of my favorite bits was Florence Pugh’s Yelena teasing Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow about her constant need to pose before she starts a battle. That was a funny gag.
By far, the best parts of BLACK WIDOW are the performances of Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh, and the energized polished action sequences, but a surprisingly lackluster script weighs the whole thing down throughout, so when all is said and done, BLACK WIDOW remains just an average entry in the Marvel superhero movie canon.
It’s difficult to pose this one as anything else.